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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a health disorder that causes breathing to continually stop and start while you are sleeping. Although it might seem similar to mere snoring, it is much worse. Additionally, although some people might view it as an annoyance, it is actually quite serious. For instance, after a person falls asleep, OSA results from throat muscles relaxing and blocking the airway.
Violent snoring, sudden awakenings accompanied by choking, and fatigue throughout the next day are some of the main symptoms of OSA. Researchers are just now beginning to understand just how dangerous OSA is.
Prevalence of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Based on data gathered from assessments and formal tests, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) estimates that up to 20 percent of adults suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. However, the NSF also suggests that this estimation is low due to symptoms being under-reported. The reasons people might not report their symptoms include the following perceptions regarding OSA:
- OSA is not perceived as dangerous
- Symptoms attributed to being chronically tired are tied to causes other than OSA
- People might be completely unaware they suffer from OSA
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Risk Factors
An individual with OSA experiences an insufficient amount of oxygen while sleeping. The condition is linked to a variety of health issues, such as high blood pressure, memory problems, and heart disease. Consequently, it is extremely important to educate people about the fact that OSA is not a mild annoyance that simply interrupts one’s slumber. For instance, recent research results suggest there is even a link between cancer and OSA, especially in women.
Studies Linking OSA and Cancer
A study conducted between 2007 and 2016 was featured in the European Respiratory Journal. The researchers reviewed the medical histories of 19,556 patients in the OSA database. Of these patients, approximately 390 people had a diagnosis of cancer documented in their medical history. Of the patients with a diagnosis of cancer, 1.7 percent were men while 2.8 percent were women. Although the researchers were clear that the results did not actually prove OSA had a causal effect in the development of cancer, their findings did show a clear link between OSA, being female, and developing cancer. Currently, further studies are underway to determine if there is, in fact, any type of causal link between OSA and cancer in women.
While it is becoming clearer that OSA is most likely a risk factor for developing cancer, it is unlikely that cancer causes OSA. One theory for this link is that OSA and cancer have common risk factors, such as obesity and age. In fact, research has shown an association between older age and an increased risk for cancer. This increased risk suggests cancer growth is linked to intermittent nocturnal hypoxia, which is the technical term for not getting enough oxygen while asleep.
Another theory emphasizes the effects of intermittent nocturnal hypoxia combined with fragmented rest, both of which occur in individuals with OSA. For instance, this theory rests on the idea that changes in immune function, blood vessel development, and the environment in which tumors grow may develop from lower amounts of oxygen throughout the night.
In the last decade, recent studies showed the link between higher cancer rates and intermittent nocturnal hypoxia to be stronger in females and weaker in males. In fact, the results suggested that for females who experience severe symptoms of OSA, the risk of cancer is three times higher. Additionally, past research had focused on the link between malignant melanoma and OSA. However, in light of these new findings, researchers may now begin to broaden their focus to include other cancers, such as breast cancer and cancer of the uterus.
One theory is that estrogen may play a role. For instance, it is hypothesized that cancer might be triggered by the combination of estrogen and the increase in stress that results from the intermittent nocturnal hypoxia individuals with OSA experience. In in other instances, women with OSA might develop cancer as a result of OSA lowering the body’s immune system.
Sound Sleep Medical
Visit us at Sound Sleep Medical to assess your sleep patterns, find out if you have sleep apnea, and get the treatment you need to get back to sound sleep. Contact us to learn more!